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Marxists and the British Labour Party

The 'Open Turn' debate


A note on Ted Grant's explanation of Entrism in the 1940s

by Bob Labi (CWI IS), 1 September 1991

One of the main issues debated within the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) from mid-1945 until its last conference in June 1949 was entrism. On the basis of completely wrong perspectives the Fourth International (FI) leadership (the then International Secretariat [IS] and International Executive Committee [IEC]) and the Gerry Healy-led Minority within the RCP argued first for entry into the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and then, from the end of 1945, for entry into the Labour Party (LP).

This debate continued until the FI forced the RCP to agree, in October 1947, that the Minority could establish their own organisation, completely separate from the RCP and the RCP's own LP group, working within the LP. From the beginning the Healy group in the LP worked in an opportunist fashion. Before this division the RCP had 336 members, of whom 66 worked within the LP. Only half of the 66 RCP members in the LP supported the Healy-led Minority.

During this three year debate Ted Grant (TG) opposed entry. While both the objective situation and the strength of Trotskyism are very different today when compared with the 1940s and we have developed enormously the methods of entrism it is still very interesting to read the general comments on entrism which TG and the RCP majority made at that time.

The first major document of the RCP majority in this discussion on the LP was a reply to a document of Healy written in November 1945. TG and the RCP majority wrote:

"Comrades Healy, Goffe and Finch appear to view the perspective of entry roughly as follows: we enter the LP; we carry on a struggle inside against the leadership and its policies, and against Stalinism and centrism; in the course of this struggle we build a left-wing organisation under our leadership (or alternately fight for the political leadership of an already existing left-wing); this process goes on until we have exposed reformism to the workers (and presumably Stalinism and Centrism also), when we proceed to re-establish once again the open revolutionary party. A beguiling picture of smooth, unbroken progress!

"Unfortunately however, both for our comrades of the Minority and for our party as a whole, the struggle inside the LP will not develop in this fashion, even supposing that our Party eventually carries out the entrist tactic. We have already had experience internationally of what happens when entry takes place. In France and Belgium our sections entered the mass parties of the Second International in 1934 and 1935 respectively. They made considerable initial progress - in France, for example, our comrades got significant support at the Congress of Mulhouse in 1935. But this very progress led to the reformist bureaucracy very speedily taking repressive action against them, before they had become strong enough to be able to put up an effective resistance. Very soon, the influence which our French comrades had won reached its peak in the course of this struggle with the bureaucracy. It was then that they should have split. But unhappily, many of our French comrades had the same illusions that our Minority have today - they believed that, provided that they manoeuvred correctly they could beat the bureaucracy and continue making progress inside the SFIO. They therefore did not split and continued the organisational struggle with the bureaucracy, in the course of which they were forced to make serious compromises and began to lose ground.

"The result of the delay was that the split took place at a moment chosen not by us but by the SFIO leadership and at a time when our influence was already past its peak. In consequence our gains at the time of the split were considerably less than could have been obtained earlier.

"Our movement summed up the French experience in the international discussion and came to the conclusion that a twofold mistake had been made by our French section. It had not entered sufficiently promptly and unitedly, but having entered, it stayed inside too long. It was also established that what took place inside the SFIO must be regarded as typical of the results of entry into a party of the Second International under conditions of mass radicalisation, and that similar experiences were to be expected in future cases of entry. The very initial successes of the Trotskyists inevitably lead to an organisational counter-attack at a certain stage by the reformist bureaucracy Our comrades should choose the appropriate moment during this counter-attack to realise their gains by splitting and re-establishing the open party. If they do not do this they will be forced out by the reformist leadership but at a later stage, and under less favourable conditions.

"Given the huge bureaucratic machine of the British LP we may expect that at a certain period after entry an even more formidable attack would be made on us than that to which our French comrades were subjected. Under these conditions to suggest that supposing entry were to take place, we would be able to defeat reformism In Britain while inside the LP, is to sow the worst illusions in our own ranks. Were entry to take place - and this is possible in the future - the existence of such illusions within our own ranks might easily lead to a repetition of the French mistakes, and to our gains from the entrist tactic being lessened in consequence."

(From "Comments of the RCP PB on (Healy's) British Labour and the Tasks of the FI" December 1945. Emphasis as in the original)

At the same time the debate on entry into the ILP continued. In March 1946 the RCP PB wrote an article attacking the position of Stuart (Sam Gordon) the FI's official representative in Britain, TG and the RCP wrote:

"The whole question revolves around the question of the objective situation and the possibilities - given a certain relation of forces, moving in different directions and a certain strength of one's own forces etc, etc. It is a question of estimation of the objective situation. For example, an attempt on the part of the American comrades to enter the Socialist Party in 1933, say, would have been entirely false; or of the French to entry the SFIO in 1930.

"But precisely here it is a question of timing. Today, one may turn one's immediate attention to the CP, yesterday to the ILP, tomorrow the LP. It all depends on the trend of developments. On yet another occasion possibilities might be present simultaneously in all three directions.

"But what has all this to do with the sectarian attitude towards the Mass Organisations, with the sectarian attitude of the ultra-lefts in Lenin's day who refused to work in the reformist organisations; or to have a united front with them or operate the tactic of "Labour to Power", or with teaching the masses the futility of reformism and parliamentarism?

"The question: when to turn full attention to an enemy organisation is an important one; in fact, in a given situation is decisive. While one may reject entry today, it may be posed tomorrow. Surely this is elementary. So with all tactics. The tactic of critical support for the LP can be, under given conditions, transformed into the organisation of an insurrection against it. What has all this to do with the ultra-lefts against whom Lenin directed his arguments?

(From "The ILP - a reply to Stuart", March 1946. Emphasis as in the original)

In June 1946 the then IEC called on the RCP to enter the LP and in January 1947 the then IS wrote to the RCP CC urging them to agree to this policy. In March 1947 the RCP PB wrote a long reply ("The Real Situation In Britain") attacking the IS's wrong perspectives and wrong attitude to entry. At that time TG and the RCP Majority rejected the idea of long-term entry as incorrect. It was only after the dissolving of the RCP and the entry of its members into the LP in June 1949, the subsequent re-unification with the Healy group to form the "Club" and the expulsion of TG and his supporters from the "Club" in 1950 that TG and the other comrades drew the conclusion that, because of their extreme weakness, they were faced with long term work within the LP.

In March 1947 TG and the RCP Majority wrote:

[The rest of this article consists of the following quote from "The Real Situation In Britain", March 1947 - Ed]

Frankly it seems to us that you have been swept off your feet by the victory of the Labour Party. Echoing the ideas developed by Lenin and Trotsky, and which are now commonplace in our movement, that the masses do not desert their traditional organisations lightly; that only great historical shocks prepare the movement of the masses away from their traditional organisations, you lecture us on the need to go through the experience of Labour in power.

But you have lost sight of the meaning of the slogan of Labour to power. What did Lenin and Trotsky mean when they spoke of the masses going through the experiences of the Labour Party in power? Did they mean that automatically and of necessity, the masses must go through the local organisations of the Labour Party? In that event, the Communist Party should never have been formed at all in Britain, nor the Trotskyist Party. The Trotskyists should have entered the LP and remained there until the masses had completed their experience. This position which was evolved by the "Left" faction who split from the RCP in 1945, is now being seriously repeated in the camp of the British Minority. This conception, however, is a miserable caricature of the tactic advanced by the Fourth International.

There aim of the Leninist slogan of "Labour to power" was to mobilise the masses within the limits of their attachment to the mass organisation, against the capitalists, and to serve as a bridge to these masses. (In this it had the same function as the CGT - S P - CP to power slogan in France.) It was formulated it with the knowledge that agitation and propaganda would not be sufficient to convince the broad masses of the correctness of revolutionary communism by themselves, and that it was also necessary that the masses should experience the activities of reformism in power in order to realise the futility of reformism. That the revolutionary party would seek the best methods of fully participating in these experiences and fructifying them to the advantage of revolutionary communism, goes without saying. But what is surprising is that neither the I S nor their collaborators in Britain appeared to be aware of the fact that the masses are going through this experience of Labour in power right now!

The organisational forms under which they would undergo this experience could not be exactly chartered in advance. On the basis of actual experience, we can now see how the workers are reacting in their organisations to a Labour in a power.

Insofar as the workers are moving into action against the government and the policy of the LP tops, it is primarily through the trade unions. They are conspicuously absent from active participation in the local Labour Parties.

You want us to come to these workers, dockers, transport workers, and other sections who come into collision with the Labour leaders, not under the most favourable and legal conditions with our own banner but under unfavourable illegal conditions with the banner of the "Lefts" in the Labour Party.

At a time when the broad masses, above all the decisive section of the workers organised in the trade unions, are going through the experience of the Labour government, not inside the local Labour parties, but through their trade unions and ad hoc organisations, to advocate that the Trotskyists should enter the Labour Party, is to stand the tactic of entry on its head.

All the arguments of the IS and our Minority lead to the conclusion that the industrial struggles reflect themselves directly in the Labour Party, and that as an independent force we are too weak and isolated to influence the trend of events outside the Labour Party

The general conditions for entry - Trotsky's method

When we asked you to explain your conception of the general theoretical considerations for entry, you replied with a sophism:

"this question is above all a concrete one …"

In this you are not approaching the problem as Trotsky did. Thus your references to entry for the purpose of self-preservation during a period of reaction on the one hand, or for the purpose of undertaking the first serious work on the part of isolated revolutionists at the dawn of its tendency, on the other, is an evasion.

Your backhanded introduction of the leftism of Oehler (which can only have as its aim the smearing of your opponents with a label which does not belong to them) is sheer demagogy.

You say:

"the best manner of proceeding at present in this question seems to us to be to start not from a general formulation of the conditions under which they entrist tactic is to be recommended and is practicable but on the contrary from concrete conditions."

Thus, according to you, there are no lessons of a general theoretical character to be drawn from our experiences of entry in the past. The subject is not to be approached from the standpoint of historical and political generalisations in which the experience gained through the test of events is used to confirm and concretise the practical tasks, but from the standpoint of the rule of the thumb - the crassest empiricism.

In direct contrast to your method Trotsky did approach the problem and base himself on general historical considerations. He initiated the discussion on the French Turn in two articles published in "La Verite", August 1934, and September 1934. (Note by BL: This article, actually published in "La Verite" in September 1934 summed up the discussion that had begun in July 1934) Let us examine how he posed the problem. France had entered a crisis of the regime, he wrote:

"The Socialist Party of France ... is developing in a direction opposite to that of the development of the state; whereas parliamentarianism has been replaced by Bonapartism, which represents an unstable stage on the road to Fascism, Social Democracy, on the other hand, goes forward to a mortal conflict with Fascism. Is it possible, however, to give to this proposition, which has today enormous significance for French politics an unconditional and therefore INTERNATIONAL character?

"No, truth is always concrete. When we speak of the opposite directions of the development of social democracy and of that of the bourgeois state under the conditions of the present social crisis, we have to view only the general TENDENCY of development, and not some uniform an automatic process. The political question is decided for us by the extent to which the tendency has been realised in practice.

".. .. the tendency to the squeezing out of reformism by centrism, like the tendency to the radical isolation of centrism, cannot but have an international character, in accord with the general crisis of capitalism and of the democratic state. But a decisive significance for practical, and especially for organisational conclusions, is possessed by the question as to how this tendency is reflected - at the given stage of development - in the Socialist Party of the given country. The general line of development which we have established must only direct our analysis, and can in no way anticipate its conclusions.

".. .. In pre-fascist Germany the approach of the rupture between the bourgeois state and reformism found its expression in the formation of a left wing within social democracy.

".. .. in France this same basic historical tendency has found an essentially different reflection. Under the influence both of special national conditions and of international lessons, the internal crisis in French democracy assumed a considerably deeper development than in the corresponding period in German Social Democracy.

".. .. An analysis should be made, from the above point of view, of the position of the Socialist parties of all capitalist countries which a passing through different stages of the crisis. But this task goes beyond the limits of the present article. We will point only to Belgium, where the Social Democratic Party, tied up by its thoroughly reactionary and corrupted Parliament, municipal, trade union, co-operative and banking bureaucracy, finds itself today struggling with its LEFT wing and strives to imitate its German models (Wels-Severing and Co.) it is clear that it is not possible to draw the same practical conclusions for both France and Belgium." ("The Way Out", August 1934, Trotsky’s emphasis in CAPITALS – our emphasis in bold)

Thus, according to Trotsky the whole historical process of conflict between the state and social democracy, and the tendency to polarisation WITHIN the Social Democratic organisation were the political factors upon which we based our orientation towards these organisations. But for practical decisions posing the question of entry as an immediate task, the political question is decided for us by the extent to which the tendency of polarisation has been realised in practice.

Above all .. ..

".. .. it is necessary to keep one's hand on the pulse of the workers' movement and to draw on each occasion the necessary conclusions. "

Contrast this dialectical method of the older man with the pettifogging metaphysics in your material.

All the experiences of the British Trotskyists confirmed the correctness of the Old Man's method: positively, from our correct application of the method, and negatively, when we made various mistakes.

Our past experiences of entry

In Britain we were in the ILP when the left-wing of that organisation split towards Stalinism, and a consolidation of the right wing took place. Inside the Labour Party a left wing had arisen of some dimensions. The Labour League of Youth was a mass political youth organisation, 30,000 strong, in conflict with the Labour leadership. At this stage, Trotsky, keeping his finger on the pulse of the workers' movement, gave an interview to one of our comrades in which he gave the following directives on our future course.

To the question should the ILP seek entry into the Labour Party? He replied:

"At the moment the question is not posed this way. What the ILP must do, if it is to become a revolutionary party, is to turn his back on the Communist Party [See Note 1]  and face the mass organisations. It must put 99 per cent of its energies into building up fractions in the trade union movement. At the moment I understand that much of the fractional work can be done openly by the ILPers in their capacity of trade union and co-operative members. But the ILP should never rest content; it must build its influence in the mass organisations with the utmost speed and energy. For the time may come when in order to reach the masses, it must enter the Labour Party, and it must have tracks laid for the occasion. Only the experience that comes from such fractional work can inform the ILP if and when it must enter the Labour Party. For all its activity an absolutely clear programme is the first condition. A small axe can fell a large tree it only if it is sharp enough. " (our emphasis)

On the question of the Labour League of Youth, however, Trotsky had an entirely different answer. To the  question: would you recommend the same perspective for the ILP Guild of Youth as the adult Party? He answered:

"even more. Since the ILP youth seemed to be few and scattered, while the Labour youth is a mass organisation, I would say: "do not only build factions - seek to enter."

"For here the danger of Stalinist devastation is extreme. The youth are all important (Leon Trotsky's emphasis) .. .. they will listen more easily to us - if we are there to speak to them. (LT's emphasis). No time must be lost. Out of the new generation comes the new International, the only hope for the World Revolution. The British section will recruit its first cadres from the 30,000 young workers in the Labour League of Youth. Their more advanced comrades in the ILP youth must not allow themselves to be isolated from them, especially now at the very moment when war is a real danger."

The flexible approach of the Old Man, his sensitivity to the pulse, and are essential elements in the armoury of our movement. Without this it is not possible to make a correct tactical assault upon the mass organisations.

For nearly 14 years, the question of entry has never been off the agenda for the British Trotskyist movement. First the ILP, then the Labour Party. During the whole of this period British Trotskyists have been in the process of entering these organisations or in the process of leaving them! Added to the hundreds of documents, there is a mass of accumulated practical experience, mistakes and successes [see note 2]. It is clear that the I S has neither studied these experiences, nor is it very interested in them. Thus you can write:

"we know that these experiences (entry) have not been very happy ones in Britain .. .. but to merely use these unfavourable experiences as a general argument against entry now seems to us entirely incorrect."

But far from all our experiences being bad experiences, there have also been many good ones. Despite several mistakes, mainly due to the youthfulness and inexperience of the cadres, the first real break from the vicious circle of our complete isolation was made as a result of entry into the League of Youth (LOY).

But it is impossible even to speak of the situation being similar today to what it was at that time. The Labour Party had just recovered from the blows of the McDonald - Snowdon sell out. The local wards of the Labour Party were active bodies, part of a pulsing movement, participating in unemployed demonstrations and in struggles against the fascists. Although the general level of consciousness was lower and the objectives had a more immediate character, nevertheless, the criticism of the Labour leadership and active opposition to it was widespread. The Socialist League reflected this opposition even though it was a petit-bourgeois tendency led by Cripps. At the same time, the mass League of Youth was in revolt against the Labour Party tops, and in to which the Stalinist had sent a formidable faction. In this vigorous and active milieu there was scope for mass revolutionary work on the basis of total entry.

This experience proved conclusively the correctness of the Old Man's method. A small revolutionary group, lacking much of the experience which we have since gained, could grow considerably in a relatively short space of time.

When the movement began to decline following a mass split from the Labour League of Youth towards Stalinism, and especially after the outbreak of the war, it is now clear that it was a mistake to remain completely entrist, and the comrades who turned outward towards the strike struggles and away from the Labour Party adopted the correct tactic under the given conditions.

All our experiences demonstrate the following:

1) In a period of healthy internal life and internal struggle within the reformist or centrist organisations into which we had entered the Trotskyist tendency could grow; and

2) When the movement was quiet and more or less dormant we did not grow but stagnated - especially if the real struggles of the workers found expression outside the Labour Party in the unions and factory organisations.

Innovations on entry - and new objectives for Trotskyism

Your abandonment of the whole Trotskyist approach to the problem of entry is accompanied by new perspectives and tasks for the British Trotskyists.

No longer is entry to be considered as a short-term perspective under conditions of centrist polarisation; now it is to be conceived as a long-term perspective. "entry" you write ".. .. signifies for the Trotskyists a campaign of relatively long duration."

The fact that this tactical conclusion is in contradiction with your short-term economic and political prognosis of crisis, does not seem to you to require explanation. Such trifles are unimportant in a thesis which in any case lacks the first elements of cohesion. Nevertheless, it is necessary to dwell on this problem a little.

A long term perspective, qualified though it may be with the distinction of being relative, can only be conceived of if you accept the economic and political perspective as put forward in our thesis. If, on the contrary, one accepts the perspective of a rapidly developing crisis, the idea of a long-term perspective is ridiculous in the extreme. However sympathetically one tries to approach the contradiction, the only aspect that stands out clearly is the ideological crisis in the I S.

Another aspect of this innovation of a long-term perspective has to be taken into consideration: the continued presence of the revolutionary current in the reformist party does not depend only on the determination of revolutionaries to remain, and their skill at manoeuvre. Nor does it depend on the measure of support that it may be possible to find in the mass party. The attitude of the bureaucracy is an important element which has also to be taken into account. As soon as the Trotskyists begin to dig the ribs of the bureaucracy, locally and nationally, the big stick will be wielded, and the Labour leaders have much experience at wielding it. In a live pulsing milieu, the Trotskyists can find some protection, though even then, not for long. But the conduct of revolutionary activity outside the Labour Party, which is what you are forced to advocate since the workers do not attend Labour Party ward meetings - and which irritates the bureaucracy inside that Party - will soon bring its own results."

("The Real Situation In Britain", March 1947)


[These notes appeared in the original RCP text]

Note 1

At that time there ILP had an ultra-left attitude towards the Labour Party upon which it had turned his back, and at the same time, had set up permanent "unity committees" with the CP. Trotsky advocated a complete rupture of these "unity committees", which "were nonsense in any case." In place of this, he argued that the only important United Front for the ILP was with the Labour Party, the trade unions and the co-operatives and that the first step towards this was a rupture with the CP. [Back]

Note 2

Example: for the 1945 conference of the RCP, held after the Labour government had come to power, and before the IS had discovered the unique structure of the Labour Party as the determining factor on entry, the same IS a representative, supported by this same Minority, could seriously propose fusion with the left wing of the ILP and entry into the ILP. The same fire, the same vigour, and the same arguments we used then as now. Thus we were sententiously informed .. .. that the "whole question" of the ILP was of a "burning importance" for the RCP; that "the objective that we should set ourselves is one that requires a long perspective: the winning over of a majority in the centrist party and fusion with this majority"!!! And after 28 pages of argument in favour of this perspective, the ringing directives which crowned of the masterpiece, was: "Full course towards the left wing and the winning of the majority of ILP! That's the order of the day for the British combat party of world revolution!"

Needless to say this long-term perspective of yesterday was quietly dropped overboard in the dark of night.





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